Iconic Forms in African Art 2
The Songye people of the Democratic Republic of the Congo have an artistic influence vastly disproportionate to their population, which totals around 200,000. Their Kifwebe mask is among the most distinctive and well-known of all African masks. Kifwebe means “mask” in the Songye language, so while it may seem redundant to be discussing a Songye “mask” mask, I use the term here because it is widely recognized. Kifwebe masks can be either female or male, the latter distinguished by a crest which traces a thick unbroken line from the bridge of the nose along the brow and across the scalp. Almost all Kifwebe masks are characterized by exaggerated puckered lips, sleepy slit eyes set in protruding oval sockets and ridged lines which follow the contours of the face. These striations are said to have been inspired by a striped antelope which is native to the territory occupied by the Songye.
The Akua’ba doll is produced by Ghana’s Asante (Ashanti) people. It takes its name from the story of Akua, a young woman who was unable to become pregnant. In despair, she visited the local priest and implored him to help her. She was told to have the town’s most skilled carver craft a wooden baby for her. She would then treat the carving as if it were here own child, carrying it with her, cradling and caring for it. Akua followed the priest’s advice faithfully and soon conceived a child. Her story became an example for other young women and the fertility dolls they took to carrying were given her name. Akua’ba dolls typically have huge flat moon-heads with serene features. Their stick-thin bodies and outstretched arms give each one a silhouette resembling a little cross topped with a giant disk.
The Gunyege or “racing mask” is made by the Dan people of Cote d’Ivoire and Liberia. Such masks were traditionally worn by participants in a vicious game of “tag,” in which the wearer would be harshly beaten if caught. The masks continue to fill this role, although the games have become more merciful. The Gunyege is remarkable for its elegance and simplicity. It is characterized by two perfectly round eye-holes and parted, protruding lips which give it an expression of wonder or fear. Although it can be embellished with hair, bells, or aluminum rings around the eyes, a Dan racing mask is generally carved with a smoothness and an economy of form, showing that its creator understands the planes of the human face so thoroughly that he can reduce them to their barest essentials.
- Jacob Liechty
Iconic Forms continued... >